Sacred Cows of Rwanda

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Sacred Cows of Rwanda

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©IFAD/Susan Beccio

Calf giving ceremony in Gatore village, Kirehe district. Beneficiaries gather at the calf giving ceremony. Beneficiaries who previously received a cow from the project, give their first born female calf to new beneficiaries in second round of cow giving. Beneficiaries learn to care for new calf and in turn give the first born female calf to new beneficiary. The project has worked with the NGO ‘Send a cow’ in Rwanda to distribute the first set of cows to the project.

For small farmers in Rwanda, livestock and cows in particular, are an important element of a household, considered as an economic asset as well as a symbol of wealth and social status. "The best wedding gift someone can give in Rwanda is a cow," explained Seraphine Umurerwa, Team Leader at Heifer Project International (HPI), the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) specialized in livestock.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is working closely with the Rwandan government to achieve its objective of providing one cow per poor family. The program, also called Girinka, was launched in 2006 to fight poverty in rural areas and reduce malnutrition especially amongst children. "After the 1994 genocide, a great part of the country's cattle was lost," explained Seraphine, "to rebuild livestock is one of the government's top priorities." Girinka drew its inspiration from a similar programme introduced in 2000 by Heifer Project International, the initiator of the system of livestock solidarity chains. IFAD is contributing to the Girinka programme through its Kirehe Community-based Watershed Management Project (KWAMP) implemented in the Kirehe District in the South-East of the country. The livestock component of the project, under which cows are provided, is implemented in partnership with HPI.

Under the project, a farmer selected according to a set of precise criteria, is given a cow in gestation as well as livestock training. The farmer has to be poor but not so poor as to be landless. "The farmers who benefit need to be able to produce forage for their cow, if not, it can create social problems as they start taking forage from their neighbours," explained Seraphine. The first female born has to be passed on to another selected farmer as a way of repaying the gift. The following offsprings remain his or hers. "This system has a powerful multiplying effect," said Janvier Gasasira, the project Coordinator at the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI) in Kigali, " after a couple of years of giving one cow to one beneficiary, we have many more beneficiaries."

However, farmers do not pass on the cow straight after birth, they have to rear the calf until it is about ten months old according to the nutrition, health and hygiene practices taught under the programme. The male calves are usually sold as meat.  "We work a lot of sensitizing farmers about health issues, diseases, artificial insemination, reproduction and nutrition, so they rear a healthy calf for the next farmer," said Seraphine at HPI.

So far, the KWAMP project has already provided 2,640 cows, of which 678 were provided through the pass-on-a-cow scheme.  The majority of the cows were Holstein Friesan imported from neighbouring Uganda. "These cows are almost ten times more productive in terms of milk production than the traditional Rwandan breed and adapted to local conditions, that's why we chose to import them," said Seraphine.

An integrated way of tackling rural poverty

The programme doesn't stop at providing farmers with livestock but works on many levels as part of an integrated agricultural system. The cows produce milk which is a source of nutrition for the family as well as income with the sale of surplus milk, but also generate organic manure used to fertilize and rehabilitate depleted soil. It can also be used for producing biogas to provide energy to the house. "This model is unique, with one cow we provide an answer to the problem of nutrition, income generation, land fertility, crop improvement and energy production," explained Janvier Gasasira.

The Pass-on-a-Cow programme was first introduced in Kirehe under another IFAD-supported programme, the Support Project for the Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture (PAPSTA), which was a pilot programme for KWAMP. Before that, HPI had been working in other areas of Rwanda, particularly in the North and contributed to the design of the KWAMP project. "We really see the difference when visiting the farmers, in terms of household's wealth and self-esteem" said Antonio Rota, livestock expert at IFAD.

Pacifique Musabyimane, one of the small farmers of the District who benefited from the project, received her first cow in 2009. As a child during the genocide, she became an orphan and is now helping other orphans by taking them into her house. She is responsible for seven children. She says that her cow produces between 8 and 15 litres per day, depending on whether it is the dry or rainy season. "Forage is limited during the dry season so the cows produce less milk. We consume 3 litres ourselves and I sell the rest to the milk collection centre of the sector," she added. With the income, she buys vegetables, meat and clothes. In her small plot next to her house, she grows maize, bananas, soybeans and beans. "My production has increased since I started using the manure to fertilize the soil, so I also get more food from my plot."

The cow she received has already given her one male and two females. The first born female was passed on. In addition, she benefited from a biogas plant introduced as part of the project to reduce the burning of wood.

Small ruminants a challenge

The poor farmers who didn't qualify to be part of the Pass-on-a-Cow programme were given small ruminants such as goats to start off. However, such feature was not as successful and some farmers sold the animals instead of trying to get them to multiply. "It was a big cultural issue because cows are so important in Rwandan culture," explained HPI's Seraphine. "The farmers who received a goat felt minimized and consequently lost interest in the animal. They felt they were unworthy to have a cow and got affected by it." The project is currently reviewing this issue to see how these farmers can be helped in a satisfactory manner.